The latest Pew Research numbers found widespread public support not only for Arizona’s controversial new immigration law, but also for comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for those here illegally. Immigration is already shaping up to be a major topic on the campaign trail as the November midterm elections approach, and political strategists on both sides of the aisle want to make the complicated issue work to their advantage. To find out how the parties are sorting through the data, the Rundown posed questions to two political strategists — Maria Cardona, a Democrat, and Leslie Sanchez, a Republican.
RUNDOWN: Looking toward the midterm elections, does the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Arizona hurt the Democrats?
MARIA CARDONA: I don’t think so at all. I think what this Arizona lawsuit does, and I know it’s tough to explain, but people also have to understand this, that the Justice Department doesn’t do things for political reasons, it’s very separate and independent, sometimes to the chagrin of the White House, as they should be. Having said that, the White House and the president have talked about the fact they don’t think the Arizona law is the way to go, and have called it misguided. But to answer the question, I don’t think it’s a net negative for Democrats, and in the long run it is definitely a net negative for Republicans, and I’ll tell you why. It was not a winning issue for them in 2008, and it was not in 2006, and I don’t see why they think it’s a winning issue for them now. What we saw in 2006 and 2008 was that any candidate who used stringent anti-immigration talk or anti-Hispanic rhetoric in their campaign and used immigration as a wedge issue in their races, they all lost.
Does this issue make Democrats nervous? Of course. There are a lot of Democrats running in swing districts that frankly have no real reason to have won those districts in the first place other than riding that wave, and they are going to get defeated this year, but they were going to get defeated no matter what. And in the long run you see polls of Latino voters and say, “Oh my God.” If I was a Republican strategist, I’d be incredibly scared for the future of my party.
LESLIE SANCHEZ: For the conservative base of the Republican party, there is a resurgence to defend Arizona and what states are doing in the absence of federal reform. What’s interesting about the support for the Arizona law is that it’s not just conservatives who favor it, it’s independents as well. When you’re seeing almost six in ten Americans in support of what Arizona did, as a recent Rasmussen poll found, it’s a strong lesson to both parties. We are seeing the zeal to support the law not just in Arizona but in states like Utah, Oklahoma and South Carolina, where they are trying to enact similar legislation, and also in campaign rhetoric from a Virginia lawmaker who says regardless of what happens in Arizona he is going to try to enact something similar in his state as well.
RUNDOWN: Can you explain the seemingly contradictory poll numbers that show broad support from the public both for the Arizona lawsuit and also for a path to citizenship for people here illegally?
LESLIE SANCHEZ: Immigration is one of those issues like affirmative action, reaction can depend on what aspect you’re talking about. This is an issue that involves fear, race, and history. When you add everything together it can be quite a toxic cocktail. Look at internal Republican polling and it shows most people want to find a humane, sensible, realistic and economically viable way to deal with immigration. There are a lot of things, regardless of ideology, that majorities in both parties agree on — in theory, stronger enforcement, whether it’s exterior enforcement along the border, or interior enforcement at the place of employment. Reasonable people agree there has to be a way to help employers who do try to the best of their ability not to employ undocumented aliens. So what do you do with the undocumented individuals who are here? Most people believe in balanced reform that includes enforcement and legalization for some individuals, but not all.
MARIA CARDONA: What we’ve seen from the public’s perspective on the Arizona law is that the majority of people do support it. What we’ve also seen for many years now is that a majority of the American people, in even greater numbers than those who support the Arizona law, support comprehensive immigration reform because they understand that’s the real solution. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that the Arizona law has so much support, because it’s in the absence of anything else. We have a broken immigration system, and we have had one for a very long time now and the federal government has failed to fix it. And so people see the Arizona law as one way to try to get something done where there has been a vacuum of leadership. I don’t think that means the Arizona law should be a substitute for comprehensive immigration reform, because comprehensive reform is what will ultimately get to the heart of problem, while the Arizona law does not.
RUNDOWN: Most political analysts agree that it is extremely unlikely that immigration reform legislation will be passed this year. Why is it so tough for Congress to move forward on reform?
LESLIE SANCHEZ: There is a divide between Republicans on how to handle this issue, but one thing we’re clear on is that no one wants a repeat of 2007. Everybody sees the repercussions of bad policy and therefore are treading more carefully. What we as Republicans are not going to do is be used in another act of political theater. It’s an election year.
Democrats are trying to appease and energize their core Hispanic and Democratic base to push them and get them energized. Centrist Latinos feel like they have fallen to the back of the line. By pushing immigration reform now and criticizing congressional Republicans, it solidifies a belief that it’s a political issue rather than a chance for real bipartisan reform.
Without a spirited champion like the late Senator Ted Kennedy who can bring people together, it’s a lot of ‘wait-and-see.’
MARIA CARDONA: The American people are saying there is logic in both enforcement and a path to citizenship. But guess what, Congress hasn’t been able to pass it, so reform hasn’t become a reality. So then the American people say, “Okay, we think this is the way to go, but clearly there is no way to get it done, so we’re going to support the Arizona law in place of it”. So Americans are going to support the idea that doing something is better than doing nothing.